Hollein's work took the sumptuousness of Joesph Hoffman, the mechanical surfaces of Otto Wagner and the sardonic wit of Adolf Loos and combined them with a very late 60s/early 70s pop-eroticism. Like Post Modernism in general, Hollein's later tendency towards bombastic commercialism can blind us to the perverse brilliance of his early work, which is now on display as part of a retrospective at the Mak museum in Vienna, a tribute to his career staged two months after his death in April.
Hollein came to international prominence in the late 60’s and early 70s with a series of exquisite shop interiors. Two of these – the Retti candle shop and the Schullin jewellery store in Vienna – are located within a precious stone’s throw from Loos’ Knize men’s outfitters and Hollein’s work can be seen as a direct continuation of Loos’. There is the same interest in fine materials and shiny, mirrored surfaces, the same sly commentary on bourgeois taste, and the same dark sensuality. It is a sensuality heightened by an austere sense of refinement and an exacting perfectionism.
The doorway of the Retti candle shop for instance can be read in two quite different ways: as an absent Ionic column cut out of the high-tech aluminium cladding or as a dirty joke, a phallic symbol that echoes the work of Claude Nicholas Ledoux and, appropriately enough, Sigmund Freud.
Hollein’s work drew extensively on surrealism and Dadaist visual puns. His early collages of aircraft carriers and Rolls Royce radiators in the landscape are like products of the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. They are powerfully incongruous and unsettling images.
Born in 1934, Hollein attended Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After graduating in 1956 he travelled to America to study under Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Whilst there he visited every town in the US called Vienna (there are seven apparently), itself a kind of high-art surrealist joke. On his return to Vienna he began a highly successful career that included being awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1985.
Hollein’s special gift was for the small-scale and the interior, projects where his highly charged aesthetic could retain full control. His interiors for the Carl Friedrich Van Sieman’s Institute (completed in 1975) have the eerie power and immediacy of film sets. His Österreichisches Verkehrsbüro (completed in 1976) is an extraordinary assemblage, containing a diminutive bronze Lutyens-esque dome, a chrome pillar growing out of a ruined Doric column, a field of petrified flags, some shiny metal palm trees and, for some reason, a row of reception grilles in the shape of Rolls Royce radiators. All of this is laid out under a domed and gridded ceiling that is a direct quote from Otto Wagner’s Vienna Post Office building. It's a brilliant mix of techno fetishism, ruin-porn, the picturesque and an up-market travel brochure.
His larger buildings lack the drama of the small-scale work, seemingly made up of a number of exquisite moments rather than a single, dominant formal idea. His Monchengladbach Museum(1982) is the best of these, a series of fragmented, crystalline forms spread across an undulating landscape. It has obvious similarities to James Stirling’s contemporary work, albeit with a refined subtlety that Stirling never aspired to. His controversial Haas-Haus in central Vienna is his perhaps his least likeable design, a building weighed down by a number of now dated post modern tropes as well as a gaudy collection of mirrored, chromed and gilded surfaces. In the flesh, it is a slightly unwieldy beast and, tellingly, looks a little lumpen in comparison to Loos’ nearby and similarly scaled Michaelerplatz building.
No wonder then that he had great success as a designer of furniture, jewellery and domestic objects. His tea set for Alessi was delicate and delightful, one of the best they commissioned. His designs for sunglasses are witty and silly in roughly equal measure.
Hollein’s work may have settled into a sensationalist formalism towards the latter part of his career, but earlier on he mined a much richer and more ambiguous seam. If there was a historicism in it, it was a detached, heavily ironic one where the decorative surfaces and grandeur of classical buildings were reassembled as if part of a dream sequence.
At its best, his work pointed the way to an architectural engagement with the European city un-weighed down by stodgy traditionalism. His work was sophisticated and clever, witty and urbane, happy to combine high-tech materials with a love of spatial effects and rich, erotic symbolism. Before mainstream post modernism curdled into corporate bombast, Hollein offered an answer to the sterility of international modernism without abandoning a commitment to the new.